Theodora Homewytewa has been described and glowingly praised as a traditional Hopi medicine woman. But in her introduction of herself to a room of students recently, she described herself as a great grandmother, grandmother and mother. She was assisted by her daughter and apprentice Michele Sockyma in a presentation at the Third Annual Ethnobotany Symposium held on the campus of Northern Arizona University. With her humble, down-to-earth presentation, spiced with candor and humor, Homewytewa won her audience’s heart.
While passing samples of wild onions, carrots, tea, and spinach, Homewytewa confirmed the message of other presenters (which included Gary Paul Nabhan, Gail Tierney and Elaine Joyal) that everything a human being needs to feed and heal him or herself is available in nature. For example the humble dandelion, branded as a weed by most lawn-growers. She described a trip into town with her grandmother, where the women observed someone cutting their lawn.
“Grandma got upset that they were moving the dandelions. She was going on in Hopi.” Here Homewytewa broke into her native Hopi language, quoting her grandmother. With a bright smile, she translated. “White people never think about what’s good for them. There they are, tearing up food!” Easing the symptoms of diseases such as epilepsy or the effects of alcohol withdrawal are some examples of the benefits of dandelion leaf tea,” she explained.
Another example Homewytewa offered described members of her family watching the evening news. “They were talking on the news about all of these people who crashed and how they had suffered because there was no food around. We were watching the television, and we could see food all around them.” Food found among the plants in the crash site.
Homewytewa also explained the importance of seeking the correct and complete use of wild plants with established healers and herbalists. Too often people may hear that Native Americans use certain plants for certain purposes, but are not clear on how to actually use them. For example, Homewytewa explained, people drink Mormon Tea. People have complained to her about the tea being bitter. Mormon Tea, she explained, must be boiled twice. The water from the first boiling is oily and has important medicinal qualities, such as relief from insect bite. The second boiling removes the bitterness of the tea, and is then used as a drink. “Please ask first, don’t just experiment,” she advised.
“In the past, rabbits were our guinea pigs,” Homewytewa laughed. The stories by which medicine knowledge was passed, she explained, was through stories of rabbit and fox. Fox plays the same role as Coyote to other native cultures such as the Navajo.
Her laughter infectious, she told how fox always came into the story to consume something poisonous or dangerous. “He always had to try something. He would always die but then there was always another fox to take his place,” she chuckled.
It is this tradition that imparts the knowledge that Hopi tea, used as an important blood cleanser, is made from the leaves and stems of the plant, but the flowers are not to be included in the tea. And one should be careful not to drink too much.
Homewytewa also shared briefly that there were roles for women and men in Hopi tradition and that there were rules which must be followed in all realms of life, including the spiritual. The Hopi, she explained, did not partake in mixed-sex sweat lodges. “In the Hopi way, women would sweat privately, not in the sweatlodge. Women were not allowed in there.”
Plants provide many uses to the Hopi people. Some plants, Homewytewa explained, are used as foods or seasoning. She described one plant which was used to make a gravy, another to be put over roast. “If you’re not used to it, you would say ‘eeeewwww,’ but I would say the same thing about sushi or caviar,” she laughed along with her audience.
The top plant in the Hopi cornucopia is of course corn. “It is used in ceremonies and weddings, dumplings, mush and bread,” Homewytewa explained. “Corn is the highest food product. And dumplings,” she smiled lovingly. “You should try it sometime. It’s good and it’s not fattening!”
In response to a young woman’s interest in having traditional Hopi teachers come to her area in Texas to teach people there about the uses of the plants around them, Homewytewa and her daughter explained that it is important to know that such a person is genuine and suggested that such requests be made through the Tribal government. But to lighten the fact that she had not jumped at such an obvious invitation, the woman shared a story of when she had traveled to another state to speak with other healers and shamans. “This one woman came out and she was dressed in this outfit,” an outfit which included a turban, feathers and staff. “It made me feel really small,” she laughed. “I didn’t know I was supposed to be dressed like that!”
But though she may not stand out because of her dress, and she would not say it of herself, Homewytewa could never be considered “small.” For she clearly demonstrates that she is big in heart, rich in humor and tradition, and willing to share those things her tradition allows. Those things she cannot share can not be had at any cost. If these things make her small, she is content.